WOODNEWTON : CHURCH OF ST MARY

Church Post Code  PE8 5EB

This church is usually open to visitors

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It was a gloriously sunny spring day back in 2010. I had taken out the cycle with the intention of cycling to Harringworth and photographing the church and viaduct there. That done I set off for home, taking a very long and circuitous route via Laxton, Blatherwycke, Kings Cliffe, Apethorpe and then Woodnewton. As always it was a delight to be out.

I was 45 years old then, rewriting this page 11 years later time has taken its toll; knees are not what they used to be, if fact nothing is what it used to be and I wouldn’t even attempt that ride today!

    Woodnewton is a charming East Northamptonshire village, with a population of 450 at the 2011 census. Its  main claim to fame probably being that Nikolai Polakvos, Coco The Clown, retired to Woodnewton in 1973, and died there shortly afterwards. The village hosts a "Clownfest" festival, a fund raising event which was inspired by Coco.

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   The church of St Mary is set on slightly high ground, by the side of the main road which runs through the village. This is a very picturesque setting, with some attractive 17th century stone cottages lining the spacious church grounds.

I spent some time observing a Red Kite circling around the church tower looking for food. The church grounds were lovely, with the daffodils in full bloom on this sunny and warm spring morning.  There was little or no traffic going past; just a couple of horseback and the gentle buzzing of a few hundred bees!

Fond memories of a previous visit; spending a pleasant time photographing some horses to the north west of the church, with St Mary in the distance. The churches are important to me; that’s why I am out in the first place, but there are many pleasant memories of the people and animals seen along the journey!

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The church consists of west tower, with nave, south aisle with clerestory, south porch and chancel. There is no north aisle.  The church of St Mary here dates back to the 11th century, but very little of that early structure remains.  Much of the building dates from the 12th and 13th centuries. The priest’s door on the south wall of the chancel, with its rounded head and dog tooth ornamentation dates from the 12th century.

The tower is battlemented and pinnacled, and heavily buttressed on the west face; no doubt due to the fact that the ground sloped away steeply at that end. The tower was rebuilt in the 17th century. In fact, much work was undertaken at this church at the time, with the porch having a date marker of 1662 above it. In the 17th century the north aisle and transept were demolished. The nave is battlemented and some very weathered gargoyles look out from the south wall.

   The church was restored in 1910, with a plaque inside recording that this restoration was courtesy of the Brassey family from nearby Apethorpe.

   This is a church which was, at least pre covid, always open and welcoming. Moving inside, past some medieval coffin lids in the south porch, it was bright and welcoming with the sunshine streaming in through the south clerestory windows. It was interesting to see a bier positioned at the side of the seating in the nave. Biers are carts that were used to transport a coffin to the graveside. There are plenty of these around but mainly they are tucked away; sometimes used as a bookstall or as a table to hold church information leaflets. This one has pride of place, and why not!

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There are some interesting carvings of human heads on the capitals in the south aisle. These date from the early 13th century. These are almost cartoonlike in appearance, with large noses and a fringe of hair carved in the same manner as the dog tooth pattern on the priest’s door! On one capital, there sat a model of a golden haired cherub, which sat, hands together and ankles crossed, looking out moodily over the south aisle.

A further carving of a human head close by has screwed up features and the kind of face that only a mother could love, and then only just!

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I wandered in to the chancel to take a look at the east window. This is a depiction of the ascension. Jesus rises up, with hands raised in blessing; crucifixion wounds visible on both hands and feet. His 11 disciples are below, with ten of them looking upwards at their risen Lord. John however, looks down for whatever reason. Possibly he is unable to believe what he is seeing?

Two angels observe the scene, each holding a banner, on which is part of Acts Chapter 1 verses 11, with the full verse reading in the King James version,  ‘Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven’.

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    There is a ring of two bells at St Mary. When North was doing his study of church bells in the 1860's he made note of these bells. The first was dated 1640, and was cast by Thomas Norris of the Stamford bellfoundry. This bears the inscription "Thomas Norris made mee 1640". The second is from Peterborough founder Henry Penn, probably the most famous bellfounder in this area. This one is dated 1720 and has the names Charles Hall and William Exton, who were the church wardens at the time, inscribed in to it. A few years previously, in 1709, Penn had cast a ring of ten bells for Peterborough Cathedral.

   Moving back outside, the Red Kite had gone further afield in its search for lunch and I appreciated the silence, the warmth and the chance to have a day out doing what I love to do in an area in which I love to do it. I had recently set up my own business and life was a struggle at times. It was good to escape; these trips out were to be treasured.

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The church grounds are large and interesting.  A small, circular gravestone has the initials AG and a date of 1661 carved in to it. This is of an unusual design but one that I have seen before at nearby Kings Cliffe. I am always fascinated to think that we can pick up the work of an individual craftsman, who has been dead for well over 300 years.

The headstone to Coco the clown stands to the north side of the grounds, a small bust of him to be seen in a small recess at the top of the stone. There are some interesting, and beautifully carved Georgian gravestones here. Two lichen encrusted angels carry off a crown of victory on one stone; the victory being over death’ a testament to the faith of the deceased.

In a few visits here I never found this church closed, but I am not sure what the situation is since covid hit. If you are in the area, this is a delightful church to visit and in pre covid times this whole area had open and welcoming churches.  The photographs included on this page are from two separate visits to this church.